Senior Brandon Paetzell and junior Robert Melise took another step toward a championship at 132 and 220 pounds with victories at Boardwalk Hall. It's the first time since 1997 that the Warren County school has produced more than one finalist, when Bobby Piccione (103) and John Garriques finished second.
"We would have liked to have gotten one more medalist, but having two in the finals [on Sunday at 3 p.m.] is really nice," said coach Dave Post, who finished fifth in 2002 and third in '03 for the 'Liners. P'burg had six state qualifiers, including Region 1 champs Paetzell and Melise.
For Paetzell, he's back in the finals after a one-year absence, as he finished second at 106 pounds in 2014. Paetzell (15-3), who missed most of last season and a good portion of this season with hand injuries, needed overtime to keep his state title hopes alive, escaping with 24 seconds left in the second rideout for a 2-1 win over Owen McClave of Toms River South.
"I could feel him starting to break," Paetzell said. "He has a really good dump and if you don't control his wrists, he will dump you. He was baiting me. He's probably stronger than me, but after I defended [a shot attempt in sudden victory], I felt him fading again."
Up next for Paetzell is unbeaten Clearview senior Zack Firestone (37-0). Most likely, this will be the first final of the day with Bergen Catholic stud Nick Suriano, a three-time champ and 158-0 for his career, almost certainly to go last at 126 pounds with a chance to make history as only the second unbeaten four-time winner, joining South Plainfield's Anthony Ashnault. Coincidentally, Paetzell and Ashnault will be teammates at Rutgers next fall.
A big fan of Phillipsburg wrestling history, Paetzell is the Stateliners' first three-time medal winner since Garriques and the first repeat finalist since Mike Coyle (first in 1994 and second in '95).
"Wow, what an awesome feeling," said Paetzell, now 103-12 overall in his outstanding career, which includes a fifth-place finish at 106 in 2013. "After all the obstacles and adversity, it's surreal. It's definitely sunk in. It was only the second or third time that I went to a rideout in my entire career."
Paetzell, who scored an 8-3 win over Edison's Robert Cleary in the quarterfinals, has looked sharp since returning to the mat for the District 1 Tournament after a nearly two-month layoff. He broke his left hand during a match against Voorhees' Kyle DiNapoli on Dec. 23, and did not resume until the start of the individual postseason.
Melise has enjoyed his share of special moments in a Phillipsburg singlet, but this was definitely the most memorable to date. He was solid in a 10-3 decision over St. Augustine's James Brady, avenging a 5-2 loss to Brady in the Beast of the East Tournament on Dec. 20.
In the rematch, Melise (40-2) led, 3-2, after two periods and broke it open with a takedown and two back points -- off a perfectly-executed high crotch -- with 1:05 left on the clock in the third. Another takedown with 10 seconds left iced it.
"This by far," said Melise, when asked which was more memorable in comparison to his stunning pin as an unheralded freshman against Southern that led P'burg to a Group 4 title in 2014. "Everybody knows what I'm capable of now."
Melise, who had to drink a gallon of pink lemonade, which he deems his beverage of choice, just to make the weight allowance to wrestle at 220 as a freshman, is now one of the strongest 220-pounders in the state, and it's showed this weekend on the biggest stage.
"At the beginning of the season, I was coming off football and I wasn't in shape," he said. "I'm in a lot better shape and I'm confident in my shooting ability. When I get in on a leg, I have the confidence to finish and to set up for it. I learned how to shoot and shoot effectively."
Melise, who is 83-17 overall, will face a huge task in the 220-pound final against Holy Cross senior Matt Correnti (41-0), a returning runner-up and South Jersey's all-time wins leader with 161. Correnti had to come off his back in the semifinals for a 10-9 win over Michael Carfagno of St. Joseph-Montvale.
"I'm looking forward to it," said Melise, who finished fifth at 220 last year. "I like to wrestle the good kids. They come at me for three periods. I feel great and feel like I can keep going up. There's no limit to where I can be at."
In addition to Phillipsburg's two, the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area is assured of six other medal winners: Pope John's JoJo Aragona (106), Voorhees' Kyle DiNapoli (126), Kittatinny's Austin Scrivani (138), Lenape Valley's Nick Palumbo (145) and Hunterdon Central's Hunter Graf (113) and Victor Lacombe (220).
Aragona and Scrivani lost their semifinal matches. Aragona, who was looking to become Pope John's first chamo since 1990, dropped a 3-0 decision to Seneca's Joe Manchio, while Scrivani was pinned by returning champ Shane Griffith of Bergen Catholic in 4:31.
Region 2 leads the way with 21 medals, followed by Regions 1 and 5 with 17. Region 4 is next with 14, while Regions 6 and 8 have 12. Region 3 has 11, with Region 7 in last at eight.
There were some tremendous semifinal bouts and Region 1 was in the thick of a few. West Morris junior Shane Metzler nearly took out returning champ Brandon Cray of Steinert in their matchup at 120, where Cray escaped with an 8-7 win in the second tiebreaker. Cray (19-0), who won at 113 last year, is one of just three champs in Mercer County history.
It was great scene at 182 and 195, where Luke and Dean Drugac of Morris Knolls won semifinals at 182 and 195 back-to-back on the same mat. Luke scored a 7-6 win over previously unbeaten Kyle Murphy of Bridgewater-Raritan, while Dean advanced to the championship round with a 4-3 win in the ultimate tiebreaker over Wall's Joseph McKenzie. Morris Knolls has never had a state champion, but the Drugac brothers are the third and fourth finalists for the Golden Eagles. Fred Piotrowsky (1966) and Jermaine Eluemenor (2012) are the other two. Piotrowsky is now an assistant coach at Pope John and his son, Mark, a state finalist for Jefferson, is the head coach.
What are the odds? After not having a state qualifier since the program began in 1963, Carteret not only broke that streak, with two qualifiers in Ellias Vega (170) and Farhan Khan (195), but also got its first state medal in the process as Vega will wrestle for seventh place. Great story.
Lacombe is another great story as the Hunterdon Central junior will wrestle in the consolation semis with a shot at finishing as high as third on Sunday. Not too shaby for a kid who took up the sport starting in ninth grade. Along with Graf, the Red Devils have two medals in the same tournament for the second time in three years as Gary Dinmore (second at 152) and Dylan Nace (fifth at 132) did it in 2014.